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Emperor Akihito’s finest hour

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In a rare televised address on August 8th, Japan’s aging Emperor Akihito put an end to weeks of speculation by hinting openly that he would like to stand down. Alluding to his failing health and growing inability to meet the demands of his role, the 82-year-old ceremonial monarch told viewers his stamina levels have been in gradual decline for some time. Akihito has been treated for heart problems, bronchitis and cancer in recent years.

In a ten minute pre-recorded speech, one of only two the sitting ruler has ever delivered, the emperor said he would like to see an orderly imperial family succession, as opposed to the drawn-out period of mourning the nation traditionally indulges in when a ruler dies. After tiptoeing up to the line, he stopped short of calling for the constitutional reform that would be required to allow him to abdicate. Even though recent opinion polls have suggested the Japanese public would be sympathetic to his early retirement, many reacted to Akihito’s speech with shock and sorrow.

An abdication on Akihito’s part would require involves a rethink of Japan’s relationship with the Imperial Household. Even though abdications were common for much of Japan’s millennia-long history, many of the legal structures governing the royal family’s status date from the 19th and early 20th century—when Japanese law was reshaped to cast the monarch as something of a divine figure. This status is reflected in Japan’s legal system, which has no provision for abdication. What’s more, enabling this would require a rethink of the Imperial Household Law and even a redrafting of the country’s Constitution, in which Article 1 defines the Emperor as the “symbol of the state”. A major point of contention is Article 4, which prohibits Akihito from having any powers related to government – meaning that if the government decides to act and make legal changes enabling the Emperor to abdicate, it could be construed as unconstitutional political involvement by the Imperial Household.

Akihito, of course, is an unconventional reformist who not shied away from breaking down the social barriers separating the Imperial Household from its subjects. Even without a political role, he has left a deep mark on Japan ever since he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989. He has championed several important humanitarian causes – both before and during his reign – and has sought to heal the wounds of World War Two and bring the nation’s monarchy closer to its people. In a break from his predecessors, Akihito embraced the moniker given to him by the Japanese – “the People’s Emperor.”

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the Emperor and his wife emerged as the public faces of relief efforts, regularly visiting affected areas and meeting with the displaced. The nuclear crisis prompted the Emperor to give his first televised address to the nation, during which he spoke in modern Japanese that could be easily understood by the wider public and expressed hope that lives could be saved. The Imperial couple have offered their continual support to the people of Fukushima Prefecture, making the most recent of their five post-earthquake visits to the region in March of this year.

However, perhaps the most important impact Akihito had was to use his imperial prestige to reach out to the least privileged members of Japan’s society, building bridges between conflicting social classes. One of the best examples of this conviction in action came during Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Olympics, when the future emperor was crown prince. Akihito directly challenged the deeply ingrained social stigmas attached to the disabled by enthusiastically backing the Paralympics, overseeing both the opening and closing ceremonies along with his wife. The 1964 Games were revolutionary for disabled sport in Japan, leading to the establishment of a range of organizations dedicated to the support and promotion of the Paralympic movement in the country and beyond. Without the support of Akihito, one of the few people influential enough to shatter Japan’s highly conservative culture, such a bold shift in public attitudes might not have been possible.

With Tokyo once again preparing to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2020, memories of 1964 show just how much the country has changed over the past 50 years. When the Summer Games were last held in Japan, the country was still emerging from the deprivations of the Second World War and wanted to prove it was ready to emerge on to the world stage as a modern nation. In bidding for the 2020 Games, Japan was again in mourning, this time recovering from the Fukushima incident. Securing the hosting rights despite the damage inflicted by the earthquake and the nuclear disaster was celebrated as a miraculous victory and an event that helped bring the Japanese together as a nation. While allegations of financial misconduct lodged by French authorities have put a damper on the successful bid, several observers have wondered whether France’s own ambition of landing the 2024 Olympics might lead it to harbor ulterior motives.

As Akihito prepares his retreat from the spotlight, Oxford-educated Crown Prince Naruhito will step in. The 56-year heir apparent has a degree in water transport systems and is an avid skier and viola player – an uncommon mix as far as Japanese royalty goes. However, much like his father before him, Naruhito has sought to reform Japan’s social mores by advocating for issues like hands-on fathering, a rather controversial idea for a country where gender expectations remain powerful. Much like their counterparts in Western Europe, the next generation of Japan’s royals seem committed to the transformation of the imperial family into a personable, approachable symbol of the nation—a transformation Akihito has contributed to immeasurably.

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Freedom, Sovereign Debt, Generational Accounting and other Myths

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“How to draw the line between the recent and still unsettled EU/EURO crisis and Asia’s success story? Well, it might be easier than it seems: Neither Europe nor Asia has any alternative. The difference is that Europe well knows there is no alternative – and therefore is multilateral. Asia thinks it has an alternative – and therefore is strikingly bilateral, while stubbornly residing enveloped in economic egoisms. No wonder that Europe is/will be able to manage its decline, while Asia is (still) unable to capitalize its successes. Asia clearly does not accept any more the lead of the post-industrial and post-Christian Europe, but is not ready for the post-West world.” – professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic diagnosed in his well-read ‘No Asian century’ policy paper. Sino-Indian rift is not new. It only takes new forms in Asia, which – in absence of a true multilateralism – is entrenched in confrontational competition and amplifying antagonisms.  The following lines are referencing one such a rift.

At the end of 2017, Brahma Chellaney, a professor with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, wrote an article titled “China’s Creditor Imperialism” in which he accused China of creating a “debt trap” from Argentina, to Namibia and Laos, mentioning its acquisition of, or investment in the construction of several port hubs, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Piraeus in Greece, Djibouti, and Mombasa in Kenya in recent years.

These countries are forced to avoid default by painfully choosing to let China control their resources and thus have forfeited their sovereignty, he wrote. The article described China as a “new imperial giant” with a velvet glove hiding iron fists with which it was pressing small countries. The Belt and Road Initiative, he concluded, is essentially an ambitious plan to realize “Chinese imperialism”. The article was later widely quoted by newspapers, websites and think tanks around the world.

When then United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Africa in March, he also said that although Chinese investment may help improve Africa’s infrastructure, it would lead to increased debt on the continent, without creating many jobs.

It is no accident that this idea of China’s creditor imperialism theory originates from India. New Delhi has openly opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as it runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India regards as an integral part of its territory. India is also worried that the construction of China’s Maritime Silk Road will challenge its dominance in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Based on such a judgment, the Indian government has worked out its own regional cooperation initiatives, and taken moves, such as the declaration of cooperation with Vietnam in oil exploration in the South China Sea and its investment in the renovation of Chabahar port in Iran, as countermeasures against the Chinese initiative.

Since January, India, the United States, Japan and Australia have actively built a “quasi-alliance system” for a “free and open Indo-Pacific order” as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. In April, a senior Indian official attending the fifth China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue reiterated the Indian government’s refusal to participate in the initiative.

The “creditor imperialism” fallacy is in essence a deliberate attempt by India and Western countries to denigrate the Belt and Road Initiative, which exhibits their envy of the initial fruits the initiative has produced. Such an argument stems from their own experiences of colonialism and imperialism. It is exactly the US-led Western countries that attached their political and strategic interests to the debt relationship with debtor countries and forced them to sign unequal treaties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is proposed and implemented in the context of national equality, globalization and deepening international interdependence, and based on voluntary participation from relevant countries, which is totally different from the mandatory debt relationship of the West’s colonialism.

It is an important “Chinese experience” to use foreign debts to solve its transportation and energy bottlenecks that restrict its economic and social development at the time of its accelerated industrialization and urbanization. By making use of borrowed foreign debts, China once built thousands of large and medium-sized projects, greatly easing the transportation and energy “bottlenecks” that long restrained its social and economic development. Such an experience is of reference significance for other developing countries in their initial stage of industrialization and urbanization along the Belt and Road routes.

In the early stage of China’s reform and opening-up, US dollar-denominated foreign debt accounted for nearly 50 percent of China’s total foreign debts, and Japanese yen close to 30 percent. Why didn’t Western countries think the US and Japan were pushing their “creditor imperialism” on China?

Some foreign media have repeatedly mentioned that Sri Lanka is trapped in a “debt trap” due to its excessive money borrowing from China. But the fact is that there are multiple reasons for Sri Lanka’s heavy foreign debt and its debt predicament should not be attributed to China. For most of the years since 1985, foreign debt has remained above 70 percent of its GDP due to its continuous fiscal deficits caused by low tax revenues and massive welfare spending. As of 2017, Sri Lanka owed China $2.87 billion, accounting for only 10 percent of its total foreign debt, compared with $3.44 billion it owed to Japan, 12 percent of its total foreign debt. Japan has been Sri Lanka’s largest creditor since 2006, but why does no foreign media disseminate the idea of “Japan’s creditor imperialism”?

In response to the accusation that China is pursuing creditor imperialism made by India and some Western countries, even former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote an article in July using data to refute it.

Most of the time, the overseas large-scale infrastructure construction projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative are the ones operated by the Chinese government and Chinese enterprises under the request of the governments of involved countries along the Belt and Road routes or the ones undertaken by Chinese enterprises through bidding.

It is expected that with the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects and industrial parks under the Chinese initiative, which will cause the host country’s self-development and debt repayment ability to constantly increase, the China’s creditor imperialism nonsense will collapse.

An early version of this text appeared in China Daily

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Arrogance of force and hostages in US-China trade war

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Even before the ink on the comments made by those who (just like the author of these lines) saw the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires as a sign of a temporary truce in the trade war between the two countries had time to dry, something like a hostage-taking and the opening of a second front happened. The recent arrest in Canada under US pressure of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei, is unfolding into a full-blown international scandal with far-reaching consequences.

Meng Wanzhou faces extradition to the United States where she is suspected of violating US sanctions against Iran, namely by making payments to Tehran via the UK branch of the US bank HSBC. The question is, however, how come someone is trying to indict a Chinese citizen according to the norms of American law, and not even on US territory to boot?

China’s reaction was extremely tough with Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoning the Canadian and US ambassadors in Beijing and demanding the immediate release of the detainee, calling her detention “an extremely bad act.” First of all, because this is yet another arrogant attempt at extraterritorial use of American laws.

Other countries, above all Russia, have already experienced this arrogance more than once; suffice it to mention the cases of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, or of the alleged “Russian hackers,” who, by hook or crook, were taken out to the United States to face US “justice”.

Enough is enough, as they say. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is usually careful in his choice of words, said that while Russia is not involved in the US-China trade war, it still regards Meng’s arrest as “another manifestation of the line that inspires a rejection among the overwhelming majority of normal countries, normal people, the line of extraterritorial application of their [US] national laws.”

“This is a very arrogant great-power policy that no one accepts, it already causes rejection even among the closest allies of the US,” Lavrov said. “It is necessary to put an end to it,” he added.

One couldn’t agree with this more. But first, I would like to know who really is behind this provocation, even though China’s reaction would have been much anticipated. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou sent US markets into a tailspin and scared investors, who now expect an escalation of the trade war between the United States and China.

The point here, of course, is Washington’s displeasure about Huawei’s activities, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that the US Justice Department has long been conducting a probe into the Chinese company’s alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran.

There is more to this whole story than just sanctions though. The US accuses Huawei (as it earlier did the Chinese ZTE) of the potential threats the company’s attempts to use tracking devices could pose to the security of America’s telecommunications networks. The United States has demanded that its closest allies (primarily Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, with whom it has set up a system for jointly collecting and using Five Eyes intelligence) exclude 5G Huawei products from their state procurement tenders.

I still believe, however, that the true reason for this is not so much security concerns as it is a desire to beat a competitor. Huawei has become a world-renowned leader in the development and application of 5G communications technology, which looks to the future (“Internet of Things”, “Smart Cities”, unmanned vehicles and much more.)

Since technology and equipment are supplied along with standards for their use, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle going on to phase out the 5G standard developed by Huawei from global markets.

As for the need “to put an end to this,” the big question is how. Formally, detainees are extradited to the United States in line with national legislation, but at Washington’s request (which often comes with boorish and humiliating pressure from the US authorities and is usually never mentioned in public).

Add to this the US Congress’ longstanding practice of changing, unilaterally and at its own discretion, already signed international treaties and agreements as they are being ratified – another example of “arrogance of power” as mentioned before.

The question could well be raised at the UN Security Council, but its discussion is most likely to be blocked by the US representative. However, there is also a moral side to the assessment of any political practice the work on international legal norms usually starts with.

If China and Russia, as well as other countries equally fed up with the “arrogance of power” submit a draft resolution “On the inadmissibility of attempts at extraterritorial use of national legislation by UN member states” to the UN General Assembly, it would most likely enjoy the overwhelming support by most of the countries of the UNGA, maybe save for just a dozen or so of the most diehard advocates of Washington’s policy…

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Will China Save the Planet? Book Review

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Barbara Finamore has been involved in environmental policy in China for decades.  Her new book, Will China Save the Planet?,is a succinct report (120 pg.) on the short, yet promising history of China’s actions to address climate change and pollution.

Chapter 1 is about the recent global leadership role that China has taken in the fight against climate change.  At first, the PRC was hesitant to commit to specific pollution-reduction benchmarks.  After experiencing increasingly devastating bouts of industrial smog in the 1990s however, China began to take its environmental commitments more seriously.  It has set out to become the de facto leader in combatting climate change through ambitious domestic action and sponsoring international conferences.  The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has only furthered China’s dominance.

Chapters 2-4 give in-depth analysis on China’s efforts to wean itself off of coal, develop its renewable energy capacity and become a global leader in electric vehicle production.  China has long used coal to fuel its unprecedented rate of industrialization.  In recent years, it has pledged to wean itself off of coal dependency by enforcing coal plant efficiency standards, enacting a cap-and-trade program, managing grid output, promoting local politicians based on their success in implementing green policies and supporting green energy developments.  China is now home to many of the world’s top manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines and commercial & private electric vehicles.

There is much to applaud China for in its efforts.  Finamore writes that, “After growing by an average of 10% annually from 2002-2012, China’s coal consumption leveled off in 2013 & decreased in each of the following three years… Largely because of the dip in China’s coal consumption, global CO2 emissions growth was basically flat between 2014-2016.”  By moving away from coal, China has been able to, “Every hour… erects a new wind turbine & installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field.” As of last year, “Chinese solar manufacturers accounted for about 68% of global solar cell production & more than 70% of the world’s production of solar panels.”

Chapter 5 focuses on China’s mission to export its green initiatives around the world, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The BRI is shaping up to be the largest international infrastructure plan in history, investing trillions of dollars in 65 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  China thus has a golden chance to help much of the developing world to adopt clean energy goals and foster economic growth.  The Chinese government is encouraging its citizens to invest in renewable energy initiatives in the BRI countries by implementing a “green finance” system.  Through its pivotal role in the G20, China can also help to lead the developed world by spearheading reports and policies among the 20 member nations.

Barbara Finamore has written a highly readable and informative overview of China’s role in the global climate change battle.  She lists the Chinese government policies that have led the world’s largest nation to meet and exceed many of the green benchmarks that it set for itself.  It would have been helpful if Finamore had written more about China’s water instability and how that ties to the Tibetan occupation, as access to drinking water is one of the top environmental issues in the world today.  As a whole, Will China Save the Planet?is a good primer for environmental policy analysts and anyone else interested in studying feasible solutions to climate change, humanity’s greatest threat.

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